By now many people have seen the movie Ready Player One. If you have not read the book, then I recommend you do so. The movie (directed by Steven Spielberg) is about 10% based on the book by Ernest Cline. The book is much more complex and is a far more engaging story. It is also a fun read for anyone who was raised during the 1980s. My comments in this post will be based on the book.
In Ready Player One, Wade Watts describes the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) as “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis” (p. 1). The world is realistic, possibly for all five senses depending on the equipment being used. The level of detail makes the many worlds of the OASIS quite believable
The OASIS began as a game, but it evolved to become much more. People conducted business in the OASIS, attended school, and even went to work. OASIS credits, the virtual currency of the simulation, become the universal world currency. The OASIS was also people’s daily escape from the harsh realities of life in a world in which both the climate and the economy had collapsed.
Let us assume for the moment that the OASIS does exist. Let us assume that all the necessary technology exists, that it is available to everyone, and that the simulation is as realistic as it is in Ready Player One. What are the potential pros and cons?
Finding entertainment would be simple. This would go far beyond the availability of games via the home gaming consoles and mobile devices that we have today. With the OASIS, a person could play as a character in a video game, play a virtual game of football with other players around the world, explore ancient ruins, swim with sharks deep in the ocean, fly a spaceship through an asteroid field while evading hostile aliens, or fight a dragon who threatens a defenseless farming town.
A person could do all of this while sitting in a chair at home. He also would not need to buy and install software on his computer. All of the software would exist in the OASIS servers. Like Wade Watts in Ready Player One, a person would only need to log in with his headset and a pair of haptic gloves. The variety of entertainment options would be limited only by the imaginations and programming abilities of the OASIS game developers.
Next consider the easy access to information in the current internet age. We can now access information on any imaginable topic. Twenty years ago we would have needed to go to a library or bookstore and search for the appropriate books to get such information, and it would only be as up to date as the publication dates of the books. Now we can access that information and more from home, and in some cases the information is updated daily. We do not need to wait for the paper boy to deliver our newspaper each morning. We can read it on our phones the moment we get out of bed.
This would be magnified with the OASIS. We could access the information with great ease and convenience, but we could also immerse ourselves in it. Instead of merely reading about the architecture of the Roman Colosseum, we could tour a virtual recreation. In addition to studying the grammar and vocabulary of the Japanese language, we could practice with native speakers in a virtual recreation of Tokyo. We could also combine this with the entertainment aspect, re-enacting the Spartan defense of Thermopylae against the Persian army while giving and taking orders in the Greek language.
This leads to the benefits for education. Wade Watts attends a virtual school in the OASIS. From the safety of his hideout concealed under a pile of junked cars, he is able to attend a full range of high school level classes without needing to commute to the school. If this existed, then it would help us to relieve some crowding in schools in heavily populated areas, although there would still be the same need for a sufficient number of teachers. It would also allow children and teenagers to attend school while living in remote locations, provided reliable internet access is available.
Another potential benefit for education would be the increased availability of college. Today people sometimes need to travel out of state to receive a quality education in their chosen field. This adds expenses and travel needed for travel and lodging. If a virtual school has the same level of respect, then a person can attend that school from home. I wonder, however, how good the hands-on training would be for students studying such fields as surgical medicine. Sure, a virtual reality could provide virtual hands-on training of a sort, but I do not think many people would want a surgeon who had little in person training with a real human body.
The OASIS would also present great potential for teleconferencing. In one sense, the OASIS is one big teleconferencing session. People from all over the world interact “face to face” in a virtual sense without leaving their homes or offices. Examples in the book include Wade’s meetings with Aech (or the High Five) in the Basement or his meeting with Nolan Sorrento in the virtual IOI headquarters. This is a logical step beyond current teleconferencing via Skype or Facetime. It would take the potential for interaction to a higher level, which could be beneficial for business meetings.
Despite the benefits, there are some serious potential dangers to a real life OASIS. First, some of the potential benefits could also be potential dangers. The easy access to entertainment would be one of the most immediate risks. The addictive nature of contemporary digital devices is no secret. In any public place, a person can look in almost any direction and see someone glued to his or her cell phone with little or no interaction with the real world (I am proofreading this on my phone in a McDonald’s while waiting for my car’s tire alignment). The problem would be greatly magnified in a fully immersive and realistic virtual environment which has the potential to stimulate all five senses. If we add the easy access to fully immersive entertainment, then the problem could make current digital addiction seem mild.
Second, people would be tempted to use the OASIS as a nanny as Wade’s mother did for him, like today’s parents letting a TV or a tablet raise their children. This would deprive children of the personal mentoring and inter-personal interaction that is vital to growing in maturity. Any relationships they developed in the OASIS would be artificial because they would only see what their friends wanted them to see. Online relationships would be incomplete and shallow.
Third, there would be the potentially overwhelming temptation of escapism, or preferring fantasy over reality. In Ready Player One, people were addicted to the OASIS because they could do whatever they wanted to do and be whatever they wanted to be. Ogden Morrow eventually resigned from Gregarious Simulation Systems because the OASIS had become a self-imposed prison where people hid while the real world collapsed from neglect. In a similar manner, Wade grew to hate the truly real world and instead considered the OASIS his “real” life. The truly real world reminded him that his OASIS life was in fact not real. It is strange, however, that he nonetheless came to view his virtual life as a self-imposed prison.
Mark Zuckerberg said that he is building a virtual world because he is dissatisfied with what he considers the limited real world. He believes that a virtual reality can be an improvement on the real world. He admits that a virtual cannot replace being physically with someone or physically doing something, but he says that when the constraints of physical reality do not allow such activities, then VR will make our reality better. He insists that VR will not be isolating, as some people argue, but will be the opposite because it will open more experiences to everyone and thereby provide freedom.
Zuckerberg is correct that VR can open experiences to people with easy access, but new technologies often come to us as double-edged swords. Sometimes potentially great benefits and potentially serious risks go hand in hand. Yes, with the OASIS we could visit places that we could never visit in real life. We could speak face to face with people on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, real is still real, and imaginary is still imaginary.
In a virtual world, people will put their best foot forward and hide their true selves far more effectively than they could in the real world. The temptation to escape into a virtual reality would also be a serious distraction from the real world in which every person must live, whether he wants to live in it or not. If life stinks, then escaping into an imaginary world can provide helpful break. Eventually, however, a person must decide whether to work to improve his real live or to let it fall apart around him. One can escape for only so long. Reality will demand our attention. Everyone must wake up from their dreams and face real life. An OASIS could provide great benefits, but it must be used wisely.